Right Weapon for the Job
Weapons were known by a number of different names during the
Middle Ages. While this list is by no means exhaustive or absolute,
it provides the most often-used names for weapons in general. These
weapons may have been named differently depending on the part of the
world and the time period of use.
Please note that siege weaponry is not covered in this list,
unless a name was used for both personal weaponry and siege weaponry.
Arbalest - A heavy
type of crossbow. Sometimes used to refer to
oversized mounted crossbows meant specifically as siege weapons. See crossbow.
Arming Sword - a Late
Medieval name for a one-handed sword, meant to distinguish it from either a longsword, a bastard
sword, or a greatsword.
Many in the Western Martial Arts community refer to all
one-handed swords as "arming swords," but it is fairly likely that
one-handed swords were merely referred to as simply "swords" most of
the time. The term arming sword seems to be a 15th
Arrow - the missile shot from a bow. An arrow is
measured by "draw length," that is to say, the length of the shaft
when it is held at full draw on the bowstring with the head of the
arrow just clearing the belly of the bow. A common draw length for modern
arrows is about 28", although the "cloth yard" seems to have been a
popular length for longbow arrows during the Late Middle Ages. This was measured from the outstretched arm to the opposite ear of the archer, and taken from the method of a clothier's measuring process.
Also see bolt and bow.
Axe - vying with the
spear and club for the title of "oldest weapon", the axe is hafted with a
single-edged extruded blade on the end. Although double-bladed axes did
exist in other parts of the world, there is no evidence to suggest
that they were used for warfare in Europe
during the Middle Ages. Axes
ranged from the nearly six-foot-long pollaxes to the
two-handed long axes made
famous by Vikings to smaller throwing
axes. Axes remained a
favored tool for cracking through plate armor.
Ball and Chain - referring to a particular
type of spherical-headed, non-spiked flail, the term "Ball and Chain" seems to have been an
invention of later periods in time, and was in all likelihood not
used to describe a weapon during the Middle Ages. See flail.
Bastard Sword - sometimes called a "hand-and-a-half-sword," a true bastard sword is a 15th
or 16th century sword that is distinguished by a few
factors. First, its blade is
generally the length of a one-handed sword, although sometimes
slightly longer. Secondly, its
grip is slightly longer than that of a normal one-handed sword, and
is "belted." This means that
about halfway down the grip, there is a bulge meant to help the
swordsman grip more effectively.
Bastard swords' blades usually taper to a sharp point, as
opposed to being parallel-edged.
Finally, bastard swords tend to feature a diamond cross-section
in their blade geometry as opposed to earlier-era flat blades. Without these three features, a
sword is not a "bastard sword."
are mistakenly referred to as bastard swords as a result of
misinterpretation by fantasy role-playing games.
Bec de Corbin - literally "Beak of the Crow." This is a special type of
developed during the late 15th century and used into the
It was mainly used for fighting against armor, as the "hammer"
portion of the weapon was composed of multiple small spikes (usually
four) on one side, and a long, beak-like spike on the other
side. Also see pole hammer and pollaxe.
Bill - sometimes also called the Brown Bill or the Black
Bill. An agricultural
implement modified for war, the bill was essentially a cleaver blade
atop a long staff. There is
evidence to suggest that the Anglo-Saxons may have used this weapon,
and it continued to be used through the Hundred Years war. Indeed, one of the popular war
cries of the English was "Bows and Bills!" Also see guisarme, glaive, fauchard,
Bodkin - a name that meant either a small dagger, or a long,
pointed, armor-penetrating arrowhead with a square cross-section.
Bolt - a bolt is the
projectile fired form a crossbow.
Essentially, it is a short arrow, but without a "nock" (the
groove in the end into which the string fits). Crossbow bolts have been fletched
with feathers, leather and even brass or bronze in later cases. See crossbow.
Bow - the oldest and
most widely used projectile weapon, the bow came in may forms. Consisting of a curved stave and a
string, the bow. In Europe, the long bow, composite bow and crossbow were the most common
types of bow (with the long bow being the most widely used both geographically and
chronologically). Bows shoot arrows. See also short bow, long bow,
composite bow and crossbow.
Broadsword - although not
a medieval weapon, it is included in this list in order to help
clarify some misunderstandings.
Because of widely-spread Victorian misinformation and the
profligate use of the term in fantasy literature and in role-playing
games, "broadsword" is sometimes mistakenly thought to mean "medieval
sword" or "one-handed sword."
However, the name "broadsword" refers to a specific category
of late Renaissance basket-hilted and cage-hilted one-handed
swords. The most popular
example of a true broadsword is the Scottish Basket-Hilted
Bullet - usually made of lead, a bullet was the name of the
ammunition shot from a sling.
Claymore - literally
"sword big." Commonly
identified with the 17th and 18th century
basket-hilted sword or the large two-handed Scottish sword of the
same time period. The term seems to be a linguistic artifact resulting from communication between Hihgland and Lowland Scots of the 17th and 18th centuries, and therefore does not accurately describe a medieval weapon. Scottish two-handed swords of the medieval period are really just greatswords.
Club - probably
humanity's oldest weapon, the club is simply a weighted stick with a
heavy end and a grip. The club
is the forerunner of the mace. Although the club itself was not
widely used during the Middle Ages, its descendants saw great success
as armor-defeating weapons.
Composite Bow - a type of
bow made from more than one material.
Although not generally used in Europe during the Middle Ages,
composite bows made of wood and horn did see some use in the Byzantine Empire. Composite bows were more likely to
"recurve" than standard all-wood "self"
bows. See also bow.
Crossbow - a mechanized bow in
which the stave is attached to a stock (sometimes braced against the
shoulder). Crossbows were used
as early as the days of the Roman Empire
and still see use as a hunting implement. Early crossbows were "spanned"
(drawn) by hand, later crossbows used gear-powered mechanical "crannequins" or "windlasses" to draw the strings back. Some crossbows were so strong that
one medieval Pope banned their use for war, insisting that their
continued use would bring about the end of Christendom. Also see arbalest.
Dagger - a long knife.
Daggers were generally double-edged. Daggers saw use throughout all of
the medieval period. Indeed,
in the High and Late Middle Ages, they were worn by nearly
everybody - from peasant to king.
Daggers were seen as particularly vicious weapons, and their
use by spies and assassins was high as a dagger is much more easily
concealed than other weapons.
In his 1467 treatise on combat, Hans Talhoffer
says "Now we come to the dagger; God preserve us all!" reflecting a
commonly held opinion of the dagger's lethal effectiveness. See also dirk, misericorde, poniard, rondel dagger, and scramasax.
Dirk - a dagger, usually
in reference to 17th and 18th century Scottish
Estoc - a
type of sword meant solely for thrusting. It has an unsharpened blade of
square cross-section, coming to a strong point. Estocs were
meant for stabbing through armor, and were referred to as tucks by the English.
Falchion - a type of
broad-bladed European one-edged sword. The blade was generally slightly
curved, although straight-backed falchions are not unheard of. A falchion's tip end is broader
than its grip end, making for tip-heavier balance. Related to the German Messer, the falchion is the
only type of European sword known to have been taught for occasional
use with one in each hand.
Also see Messer.
Fauchard - a single-bladed staff
weapon. A fauchard
commonly featured a long-cleaver-like blade on one side and sharpened
prongs on the backside.
Absolute definition of this weapon is difficult, as
authorities tend to disagree.
The fauchard was a 16th
century weapon. Also see bill, halberd.
Flail - like the Bill, an
agricultural tool modified for war.
Developed from a tool used for threshing what, the flail is
simply a handle connected by a chain to a striking surface - either a
weighted bar or partially spherical head. Flails could be spiked, studded or
plain, with one head, two heads, or even three. The chain connecting head to handle
could be anywhere from a single link in length to nearly a cubit long
(those used by horsemen generally tended to feature shorter
chains). See holy water sprinkler, morning star, and ball and chain.
Glaive - a
staff-weapon featuring a long, broad blade at its end in which the
front edge curves towards the straight back edge until reaching a
point. Glaives were used in
the 12th and 13th centuries.
Greatsword - any sword (generally of the 14th century and
beyond) large enough to require the use of both hands. Usually measuring between 52" and
58" in length. While not yet
the gigantic two-handed swords of the Renaissance,
Greatswords were a separate class from the
lighter, smaller longswords and bastard
Guisarm - a staff weapon popular from the 11th to the 15th
centuries under a variety of names.
It was probably a weapon with a forked head, in which one
"fork" was made of a curved, sharpened blade and the other "fork" was
a long spike. This is probably
what 16th century author George Silver calls the "Welsh
Hook" and lauds as "the most perfect weapon." Also see military fork.
Halberd - a long
staff weapon with an axe-head on one side, a spike on the backside,
and a long thrusting spike at its tip between the two. Halberds are most closely related
to the bill, and while used
as early as the 13th century, were carried by officers in
the British army into the 18th century. In Late Medieval halberds, the
shafts below the heads were often reinforced with iron to prevent the
heads from being chopped off.
Halberds saw great use as ceremonial weapons for nobility
during the early Renaissance.
Hammer - any weapon
with a blunt primary head at the end of a shaft. Hammers ranged from one-handed war hammers meant to be used
primarily from horseback to long, two-handed pole hammers very reminiscent of pollaxes. Hammers were crushing weapons meant
to defeat armor, and often featured a spike on the opposite site of
the crushing head. See war hammer and pole hammer.
Hand-and-a-Half Sword - a more modern name for a bastard
sword or long sword.
Holy Water Sprinkler - a
colorful name given to either a spiked flail or a spiked mace.
Hurlbat - a weapon shaped like an axe, but made entirely of metal. Either end of the shaft ends in a spike,
and the opposite side of the axe-head is spiked as well. Hurlbats
were meant to be thrown, in hopes that no matter which part of the hurlbat that hit, it would cause injury.
Javelin - a spear
designed specifically for throwing.
Javelins were generally shorter than spears meant for
foot-combat. See spear.
Lance - a horseman's
spear. Earlier lances were
identical to normal footmen's spears.
However, by the 14th century, lances had developed
a protective concave cone over the lancer's hand and a butt behind
the grip. The word "lance" was
occasionally used to simply mean spear.
Long Axe - made
famous by Viking raiders and almost exclusively identified with
Scandinavian and Saxon footmen, the long axe had a haft of about four
feet with a single-bladed axe head at its end.
Longbow - a "self"
bow made of a single stave of wood, the longbow saw most use in
and England. It was commonly made either of yew,
ash or elm. Longbows stood as
tall as the archer for whom they were made, and were drawn to the
ear. Because of the power given by
this draw, longbows proved to be effective armor-piercing
weapons. Though used by the English for centuries, they became more widely-appreciated after the English King Edward I ("Longshanks")
fought against Welsh longbowmen in his
campaign to subjugate Wales. They later played much-celebrated
roles in key battles of the Hundred Years war. The battle cry "Bows and Bills"
refers in part to the longbow. The term longbow first appears at the very end of the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, to distinguish it from the crossbow, and not, as previously thought, to distinguish it from the mythical short bow. Before that, it was more commonly called a bend bow, a hand bow, the English bow, or the crooked stick.
Longsword - a sword meant for use with either one or two hands. Most extant medieval and
Renaissance fencing treatises deal with the use of the longsword.
The earliest longswords appear
around 1150, and continue to see an increase in use throughout the
Middle Ages. A longsword may have either flat or diamond-cross
section blade geometry. Its
edges are generally parallel, as opposed to the sharply-tapering bastard swords. Sometimes referred to by the more
modern name hand-and-a-half
sword. The term "longsword" is sometimes mistakenly used to refer
to an arming sword as a result
of misuse by some fantasy novels and role-playing games.
Mace - a club-like
weapon either made entirely of metal or with a metal head atop a
wooden shaft. Maces were
favored during the Middle Ages as excellent crushing weapons to be
used against armored opponents.
Maces could either be plain, studded, spiked, or flanged. Besides being highly favored by
knights, maces were also used as symbols of authority, and eventually
evolved into the scepter - one of the key pieces of royal regalia. See club.
"knife." A Germanic
single-edged sword with a curving edge. Most closely related to the falchion. Messers
came in one- and two-handed varieties, and are often depicted in
German fencing treatises as slicing off hands. See falchion.
Military Fork - a
weapon consisting of a pronged pair of blades or spikes affixed to
the end of a long staff.
Military forks were of fairly low popularity, but could easily
be adapted from agricultural implements. They were influenced by the
Trident, which although not a medieval weapon was remembered as a
gladiatorial weapon. Also see guisarm.
Misericorde - a long, pointed dagger, called the
"dagger of mercy." Intended
almost solely for thrusting.
Morning Star - A weapon of 4 to six feet in length, consisting of a wooden shaft topped by a ball of either wood or metal, from which several steel or iron spikes protrude. This term is often misused as a synonym for a spiked flail (often perpetuated by movies, games, etc...).
Partisan - a long-bladed
pole-arm in which a ridged, central blade is flanked by a pair of
symmetrically placed curved branching blades. It saw use in the 16th
century and is most famous as being the weapon still carried by the
Yeomen Warders of the Tower
Pike - a very long
pole-weapon with a broad blade at the end. Early pikes used in the Greek
phalanx were extremely long.
By the 15th century they had been shortened to 18
feet in length. This is
probably what George Silver refers to as the "long staff."
Pole Hammer - a
hammer mounted at the end of a pole - usually at least 5 feet in
length. Pole hammers were very
popular for use as anti-armor weapons in the 16th
century. They generally
featured a hammer head on the primary face, a butt spike behind the
hammer-head, and a long stabbing spike at the tip of the shaft. The bec de corbin is a type of
pole-hammer. Pole-hammers are
illustrated in a number of 15th and 16th
century fighting treatises.
During the Late Middle Ages, they were often referred to as pollaxes
despite not being true axes.
Pollaxe - derived from the measurement "poll" meaning the distance from
the ground to the middle of a horse's head. Often mistakenly referred to as a
"pole-axe." Pollaxes feature a long shaft - generally of at
least five feet. The shaft is
often square, and topped with an axe head. Behind the axe head is a
hammer-head made of several blunt spikes. The shaft is generally tipped on
either end with a stabbing spike.
The pollaxe proved very effective at
defeating armor, and was a favorite for use in tourneys and pas d'armes.
The term pollaxe was sometimes used
in the Middle Ages to refer to pole
hammers as well.
Poniard - a square or
triangular-bladed thrusting dagger popular from the 12th-14th
Quarter Staff - a
name that actually refers to the way in which a staff is used - being
gripped upon the bottom quarter.
The method of fighting so often seen in Robin Hood films in
which the staff is gripped in the center is actually called "half-staff." Quarter-staff fighting is generally
done with a staff of eight or nine feet in length (George Silver's
"short staff.") The six-foot quarterstaves familiar to modern audiences are
based upon the shorter sport-fighting sticks popularized in the
1800's when quasi-medieval sport-fighting enjoyed a curious
revival. See staff.
Rondel Dagger - a dagger with a round disc-like
guard and pommel used is the 15th and 16th
centuries. This dagger is
often seen illustrated in Late Medieval fighting treatises.
Scramasax - a long, broad-bladed dagger thought to be either Anglo-Saxon
or Frankish in origin, having a single edge and grooves on either
face of the blade. Probably
related to the seax.
Seax - an Anglo-Saxon sword having a single, curved edge. The blade itself is not curved, but
the cutting edge curves towards the back edge until it reaches a
often resemble Viking swords in their construction but for their
Short Bow - this term seems to be a product of flawed research that once suggested that early medieval bows were shorter and weaker than the much-celebrated longbows. Recent research suggests that the longbow was the bow used by most countries at most times, and that the myth of "pulling the bow to the chest" that repeatedly surfaces in discussion of "short bows" carries very little credence.
Due to years of reliance on easily-misinterpreted iconography by experts and the use of the term by many role-playing games, "short bow" has become a commonly accepted term, but one that is generally inaccurate when discussing medieval bows, and should be discarded.
Short Sword - a sword
specifically meant for one-handed use and with a short blade. Short swords saw limited use
throughout the Middle Ages, although they were wildly popular with
the earlier Roman Empire. Although the short sword continued
to be used in Europe in the Middle
Ages, the simple one-handed sword and arming sword replaced it as the weapon of choice for
Sling - one of the
earliest ranged weapons, a sling is merely a piece of rope with a
pouch in the middle. A stone
is placed in the pouch, and the sling is twirled around in a circle
until one end is released, throwing the stone. While not especially popular during
the High and Late Middle Ages, the sling was still used in the Early
Middle Ages for ranged attacks.
Spear - competing
with the club and the axe for oldest weapon, the spear is simply a
long staff with a sharpened blade on the end of it. Early spears were as simple as
wooden poles with one end sharpened to a point and fire-hardened. By the Middle Ages, spears were
equipped with iron or steel heads socketed
onto shafts usually made of ash.
Because of their relative simplicity of use and construction,
spears were far and away the most widely-used medieval weapon. Whether used for throwing, foot
combat, or both, the spear was a simple and deadly weapon. See javelin and lance.
Staff - a staff is a
long pole, and in its earliest and later forms was used both as a
walking stick and as a weapon.
Because staves were ubiquitous amongst poorer travelers and
pilgrims, they enjoyed continued use all the way back through the
Biblical era and up until the present time. However, because they are of less
use in hunting, staves are not as old as spears, axes and clubs. The most commonly used fighting
staff was of around eight or nine feet in length, and may have been
pointed at either end (although not nearly as dramatically as a spear
tip). Contemporary artwork
often depicts staves as being significantly thicker at the base as
well. See quarterstaff.
Sword - of all the
weapons of the Middle Ages, the sword is the most famous. Although the sword itself is
ancient, it was not until shortly before the Middle Ages that
advances in metallurgy truly allowed it come into its own. While never the first choice for
combat in war, the sword symbolized rank and authority. It was also difficult and expensive
to make, and as a result, it was generally only affordable by the
rich upper classes (although this gradually changed in the Late
Middle Ages and Renaissance).
Swords could be used with either one or two hands, and came in
a variety of shapes and sizes, from single-edged to double-edged,
straight-bladed to curved. At
the beginning of the Late Middle Ages, blade geometry underwent a
change in response to the improvements in armor. Where before swords had been
primarily cutting weapons with broad, parallel-edged blades and
relatively flat cross-sections, they now became more sharply tapered
with diamond cross-sections, and more suitable for thrusting in
between gaps in armor. Indeed,
some special thrusting-only swords were developed, although both
cutting and thrusting always remained an important part of all
swordplay. Also see arming sword, bastard sword, estoc, falchion, greatsword,
longsword, Messer, seax,
short sword , two-handed sword, and tuck.
Throwing Axe - especially
popular with Franks of the Early Middle Ages, throwing axes saw use
throughout Europe while armor was still relatively light and
flexible. Although later
advances in armor rendered them more or less obsolete, throwing axes
were often used in initial storms of ranged weaponry in early
medieval encounters, along with slings,
arrows and even sometimes
thrown maces. Also see hurlbat.
Tuck - the English
name for an estoc.
Two-Handed Sword - a term used to describe a large sword meant to be used exclusively with two hands. Although the term is used in general throughout many medieval texts, it has now come to mean a specific subclass of swords that emerged during the Renaissance rather than the Middle Ages. The giant wavy-bladed swords oft-pictured in use by Germanic Landesknechts are of this variety, as is the Portugese Montante. A true Two-Handed sword can measure up to 5 ½ feet long--much larger than either the greatsword or longsword. Also see greatsword.
Voulge - a staff weapon that is an earlier form of the halberd or fauchard. A voulge
is generally attached to the end of the staff in two places with a
cutout in between. Voulges sometimes have backspikes,
as a fauchard,
but their blade geometry is more closely related to a glaive.
War Hammer - a type
of one-handed hammer favored by knights as an effective anti-armor
weapon for use from horseback.
War hammers were generally made completely of metal, with a
hammerhead on one face and a long backspike